New Orleans is justly proud of its generations of brass band musicians, from Louis Armstrong to Kermit Ruffins to 24-year-old Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews (who just last week taped appearances on Late Show with David Letterman and Austin City Limits). These men honed their craft on the streets of Treme and the French Quarter. So, two weeks ago, when the New Orleans Police Department began enforcing an ordinance that prohibits live performances on the streets after 8 p.m., the reaction was swift — from musicians, locals and tourists alike. With all the crime in New Orleans, why was the NOPD taking aim at the very people who keep our indigenous music alive?
According to NOPD 8th District Commander Edwin Hosli, French Quarter residents and business owners have urged police to enforce noise ordinances in the Vieux Carre, and new Chief Ronal Serpas has made it clear he intends to address quality-of-life issues aggressively. Neither of those are bad ideas, but suppressing New Orleans' live music tradition isn't the answer. While French Quarter property owners and residents have a right to peace and quiet, the corner of Bourbon and Canal streets is the gateway to the city's live entertainment district.
Part of the problem is the broad nature of the decades-old ordinance, which doesn't recognize the difference between a busy corner like Bourbon and Canal streets, where the To Be Continued (TBC) Brass Band has played for almost a decade, and the quieter streets of the lower French Quarter, which are lined with houses and apartments.
To everyone's credit, all parties involved have kept cool heads when this could have become a flashpoint. This week, representatives of the brass bands, the NOPD and Vieux Carre homeowners are set to sit down with District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer to seek common ground and find solutions. City Council President Arnie Fielkow has proffered a few suggestions that make sense, including extending hours for street performance, establishing separate laws for noise in business and residential areas of the French Quarter, and staking out different curfew hours for different times of the year. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has issued a general statement of support, but we urge him — as the state's former leader of cultural tourism — to add his voice more forcefully to the discussion.
The issue could not have arisen at a more inopportune time for tourism leaders. With the Gulf oil disaster and a reeling seafood industry, the last thing the city needs is another controversy. Word got out almost immediately. A Facebook page set up in support of the street musicians had 12,000 members in less than a week, many of whom were out-of-towners outraged that New Orleans, with its myriad crime problems, sees cracking down on musicians as a priority. This is not the message we need to send to America.
Meanwhile, the brass band musicians raise good questions. Why crack down on live bands for noise, they ask, when clubs up and down Bourbon Street are blaring canned music into the streets? Why not crack down on cars with sound systems so loud they rattle the walls of the old buildings of the Vieux Carre? Perhaps the best question was articulated by Joseph Maize, the trombone player of the TBC Brass Band, who said, "I'm from the St. Bernard Projects. All the people I know doing the wrong thing, you all don't take them, so why come take me?"
That's the crux of the issue, and it's simple: If we want our young people to do the right thing, we need to support them when they do. For years, the men of TBC and our many other brass bands have done the right thing — against some pretty strong odds. Now it's time for the city to do the right thing as well.
We all agree that music is a powerful deterrent to negative behavior, but those words mean nothing unless we back them up with deeds — and public policy. Above all, we cannot be hypocrites. We cannot dance to the sounds of brass bands at Mardi Gras and then discourage their music the rest of the year. Mayor Landrieu, Chief Serpas and the City Council need to find a way to let the music play.